The Disinformation Age

Good economies and democracies alike function on the idea that the availability of information ensures better outcomes for all. For this idea to hold true, information must be widely available to all those who seek it (without barriers to access), provided in a timely manner (before not after inflection points), and above all be accurate.

Western democracy today is under threat from the spectre of disinformation. Some have taken to commenting that we live in a "post-truth" or "post-fact" age, but it is my belief that this need not be an outcome we resign ourselves to.

Brandolini's law, better known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, states that "the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it."

Edward Snowden has quoted this law to explain away various actions of the US government over time, and described it as a "tax on resistance" (which it is). But this recognition of the asymmetry in effort that exists between the propagating and negating bullshit might equally be used to explain Russian actions today.

There are at least four good ways to disrupt the flow of information in society.

  1. Restrict the availability of information. It is for this reason that security classifications exist within governments and even businesses.
  2. Bury information amongst other information. One woman's bad news day is another woman's "good day to bury bad news". When world-media is looking elsewhere, it is standard practice for governments (and again corporations) to air their dirty laundry.
  3. Specifically undermine information's supposed legitimacy. This is what fact-checking websites seek to do (concentrating some of the effort involved in refuting bullshit, so that effort is not wasted or duplicated dozens of times).
  4. Undermine the legitimacy of all information and media generally. This might sound impossible, but in an era when we are assaulted by information from all angles, it is incredibly easy to sow generalised cynicism. This, unfortunately, is what Vladimir Putin appears to be doing today. By casting aspersions and doubt upon everything, giving the appearance that nothing at all is to be trusted, means specific rebuttals begin to carry little weight. Arguments cease to be about facts or statistics (all now assumed to be rush) and the focus turns to emotional appeals and populism (see: Brexit/Trump).

Countering Mistrust

Real Internet Commenting

A lot of fuss is made about a "right to be anonymous" online, but in truth, few country's laws or constitution anywhere in the world have ever guaranteed individuals (other than the victims or witnesses of certain types of crime) a "right to be anonymous". The United States may be the one glaring exception to this, where in a public space, individuals may exercise a right to anonymous speech. Within the EU, and elsewhere, however, it is important to note that a right to privacy is not a right to anonymity, and no such protection is necessarilly guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights or any other international treaty.

Forcing internet commenters to use their real identities may be seen by some as a draconian restriction on free-speech, but in the real world, were one to stand up in public and shout their opinion to as large an audience as possible, they would neither be anonymous (you would at least know how many people were shouting even if they obscured their faces) nor would they be unaccountable. Yet it is the case that online both are the norm.

There are a limited number of means by which the public are able to express themselves pseudo-anonymously offline (a thoughtful letter to The Times, or a subversive bit of graffiti, perhaps) - and it would be unfair to claim that there are not occassions when utility may be maximised through anonymous speech: take cases of whistleblowing, for example.

It would therefore be unwise to ban anonymous speech online entirely. Encouraging mainstream media comment sections to adopt a real-name-only or verified-identity commenter policy would instantly exclude a huge number of trolls and purveyors of disinformation, forcing them to operate out in the open (or not at all).

Radical Transparency

Asking elites to dispense with millennia of conventional wisdom around warfare is no easy task. Yet if we accept that we both live in an age where information is powerful, and disinformation is powerful, it stands to reason that the best protection any true democracy may enjoy is radical transparency.

Radical transparency cuts multiple directions. It means increased transparency in government, in business, and in one's personal life. A few examples:

  • Government: freedom of Information acts and requests are great. But should information not be public by default? Classification of sensitive material may be justified in commercially sensitive negotiations, or ongoing criminal investigations, but an assumption that information should be locked away by default exposes governments to the unnecessary insinuation that they are illegitimate or conspiratorial.
  • Business: new British Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed following the US in mandating that firms disclose the pay ratio between CEO pay and the average worker's pay. This is all well and good until you realise that it makes Goldman Sachs appear more egalitarian than partnership-model John Lewis.
  • Personal life: in Norway, each and every person's tax return is browsable by the public, with just a single caveat. If you view somebody else's tax return, they'll receive a message telling them. In other words: information is in the public domain, but so are your actions should you choose to behave inappropriately.

Bringing Factchecking into the Mainstream

On one hand, fact-checking is boring and reactionary. It does little to sway those types of people liable to be taken in by false narratives in the first place, and those who actively seek out fact-checked agendas are likely to be skeptical of the most egregious forms of disinformation in the first place. Bringing fact-checking to people and integrating it into everyday media must be key to countering false narratives.

Development of a browser plugin that allowed individuals to highlight key passages from articles and link them to one of a number of recognised fact-checking services would allow people to easily tag known disinformation for others to see, in cases where fact-checkers may have already addressed a dubious claim or comment. Much like Wikipedia, most users of the plugin would not be expected to contribute (in this case in the form of linking up relevant passages in articles to fact-checker websites), but would be able to hover over a statistic, claim or fact and instantly verify its authenticity (or not).

Increasing Costs to Attackers

My 10,000+ word look at the ways and means by which cyberattacks can be countered when they cannot be attributed essentially concludes that the most effective way to deter an attack when responsibility cannot be reliably proven is to increase the costs to those who might contemplate such attacks in the first place.

It is easy to say that the West ought to engage in cost-raising activity, but the reality is that behind closed doors we almost certainly already are - and our adversaries are likely doing the exact same thing. Take, for instance, the Equation Group hack and dump. The only reason an actor dumps hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars worth of unpatched zero-day vulnerabilities on the web is to send a message. Could that message be as simple as "we've been watching you for a while, we're going to prove that by leaking the tools you use to spy on people, if you hit us back we're going to reveal exactly who you used them to spy on?" It's at least as convincing an explanation as any proferred so far.

Next Steps

The threat to Western-style Democracy and free-speech as we know it is potentially existential, but the West is not without options. There is much that government, private sector and individuals may do, say or sacrifice in order to protect the institutions and standards that we enjoy. The lack of action so far may be ascribed to a lack of appreciation for the size and nature of the threat at hand, although commentators in the media are increasingly demonstrating consciousness of this threat. Now, with options available, translating that awareness into action must be key.